Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’
With very little commentary and mostly for my own records, a few links on the topic of:
Firstly, Joe Abercrombie talks about the value of grit:
I have been observing for some time a certain tendency for people to complain about the level of grit in fantasy books. The dirt physical and moral. The attention to unpleasant detail. The greyness of the characters. The cynicism of the outlook… Grimdark is a phrase I’m hearing quite a lot, which seems by definition to be pejorative – excessively and unnecessarily dark, cynical, violent, brutal without purpose and beyond the point of ridiculousness. There’s often what seems to me a slightly weird double standard applied of, ‘I find this thoroughly horrible and disgusting therefore the author must have intended me to be titillated and entertained!’
But, he continues:
Lots of those who praise gritty writing talk about its realism. Lots of people who criticise it assert there’s nothing realistic about splatter and crushing cynicism. You’re both right! Realism is an interesting concept in fantasy. If we were aiming at the uncompromisingly real we probably wouldn’t be writing in made up worlds with forces that don’t actually exist. So things are often exaggerated for effect, twisted, larger than life. But we can still aim at something that approximates real life in all kinds of different ways. Where the people and their behaviour and the outcomes of their actions are believable. Real life is surprising, and unpredictable. Traditional fantasy is often the reverse. You know how to spot a certain type of character, and when you spot him/her you’ve a pretty good notion where their story is going to go. Grit attempts to shake up that relationship, to throw curveballs. Critics might say that grit is so prevalent we now can be sure our hero will be eating babies by the end of the prologue, but I actually don’t believe that. I think the palette of epic fantasy has grown broader over the last few years as a result of the movement to gritty.
Portraying your fantasy world in a way that’s like our world?” Abercrombie asks. “That’s only honesty.” And that’s often a fair point to make, when it comes to fantasy. But I find it extremely telling that while he goes on to apply this rule to the presence of death, drugs, sex, swearing, bad behaviour and excrement, he stops short of parsing its relevance to the default inclusion of sexism, racism and other such problematic behaviours in grimdark, crapsack worlds. Or, to put it another way: if your goal in writing gritty SFF is to create what you perceive to be an honest, albeit fantastic version of reality – and more, one where acknowledging the darker aspects of human nature takes precedence – then the likelihood is that you’ll end up writing victimised and/or damaged women, sexist and homophobic social structures, racist characters and, as a likely corollary, racist stereotypes as automatic defaults; which means, in turn, that you run an extremely high risk of excluding even the possibility of undamaged, powerful women, LGBTQ and/or POC characters from the outset, because you’ve already decided that such people are fundamentally unrealistic.
This ties in with a recent post from Sophia McDougall on sexual assault and “realism” in popular culture and why she stopped reading A Game Of Thrones:
That sense of history seemed to be dwindling away a bit in the second book, but in the end, that wasn’t what drove me away. Instead, it was all the rape. This surprised me. After all, I’d known going in that there was quite a lot of it, and though I was prepared to find its treatment at least somewhat problematic, I’d also expected to be able to handle it. I’m usually able to read fairly graphic scenes without getting more distressed than the story called for, and friends of mine who I thought were more readily upset by that sort of thing had read the books just fine. And, as it turns out, a lot of the rapes in A Song of Ice and Fire aren’t graphic at all.
But. There. Are. Just. So. Many. Of. Them.
And occasionally they are really graphic. But that they’re mostly not almost made it worse for me. That made it possible for the narrative to load that many more of them by the casual handful into chapter after chapter. Rape as backstory, as plot point, as motivation – however badly handled, I can usually cope with it. I found I couldn’t cope with rape as wallpaper.
She notes that this rape is always against women rather than men (the title of the post is ‘The Rape of James Bond’) and Liz Bourke follows up this point:
An observer may therefore venture to suggest that sexual victimisation of men in conflict situations approaches that of sexual victimisation of women in the very same situations. In reality. But not, for some reason, in male-authored epic fantasy. What statistics we have on the (severely underfunded and under-reported) prevalence of male rape in conflict zones today, suggest that in epic fantasy every in-conflict-zone deployment of sexual threat against women should be almost matched by sexual threat against men. And yet, in male-authored epic fantasy, it’s not.
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?
George R R Martin, ‘On Fantasy’
My copy of the Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, arrived this morning and the first thing I did was flick to the index. This was because I was a bit taken aback by the short shrift epic fantasy received in their Short History Of Fantasy and wondered if the picture was different in this multi-contributor volume. Well, not much. There is no entry at all for epic fantasy this time round and it is once again difficult to get any sense of the importance of the commercial heart of the genre. In A Short History, quest fantasy and medievalism were the authors preferred terms:
- Quest fantasy: 30
- Medievalism: 25
- Sword-and-sorcery: 16
- Epic: 10
- Heroic fantasy: 5
- Immersive fantasy: 2
- High fantasy: 0
This time round it is clear that medievalism alone is the preferred term:
- Medievalism: 18
- Immersive fantasy: 7
- Heroic fantasy: 5
- High fantasy: 5
- Quest fantasy: 3
- Sword-and-sorcery: 3
- Epic: 0
In A Short History, James and Mendlesohn wrote that “the three major medievalist writers of the 1990s are Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind and George R.R. Martin.” In this book, they have been reduced to two:
A significant development of the 1990s was the appearance of the series novel on the best-seller lists. Robert Jordan, who had in the 1980s written seven new Conan books, published the first volume of his Wheel of Time series, the Eye Of The World, in 1990. Each successive volume was 1,000 pages or more in length, and by the time of his death in 2007 he had published eleven of them; the twelfth and last is being finished by an author chosen by his widow. Another such prolific, and very popular, author is Terry Goodkind, whose Sword of Truth series (beginning in 1994 with Wizard’s First Rule) has now reached its eleventh volume. Worldwide sales are estimated as twenty-five million.
This is James himself, writing the chapter on ‘Tolkien, Lewis, and the explosion of genre fantasy’ but inevitably spends most of his time on Tolkien and Lewis. It is the only reference in the book to Goodkind although two passing references are made to Jordan in Kari Maund’s chapter on ‘reading the fantasy series’. As for Martin, he only appears with respect to Fevre Dream in Roz Kaveney’s chapter on ‘dark fantasy and paranormal romance’. Now, I have read none of the three but surely they are fundamental in considering the explosion of genre fantasy and the generation of writers that emerged in the 21st Century.
James continues: “One of the most unexpected developments of the last decade has been the domination of the popular fantasy genre by Australian women.” He gives Sara Douglass, Cecilia Dart-Thornton, Caisel Mor and Glenda Larke as examples. Other suggestions might include Trudi Canavan, Karen Miller, Jennifer Fallon, Rowena Cory Daniells and Fiona McIntosh so it is clearly an important trend. But this is the only modern trend he identifies and the idea is either the only trend or the dominant one gives a hopelessly lopsided view of the genre. Look up a bestselling epic fantasy author of the last fifteen years and chances are there will be no mention of them.
He concludes: “The current state of fantasy is to a large extent described in the last section of this book. Fantasy makes up a considerable proportion of the market for popular fiction, and although Tolkien-inspired quest fantasies dominant the bookshelves the field is not defined by this one form.” Dominant but not defining; true enough. But you would think this dominance would be of more interest to the editors, in historical terms if nothing else, and the passing of the buck to those writing the third section of the book (‘Clusters’) does not wash. WA Senior’s chapter on ‘quest fantasies’ is not intended to be a survey but instead uses four examples to illustrate the subgenre: Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, Guy Gaveriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy and, more recently, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. This in no way describes the current state of the genre and, once again, the editors seem to have gone out of their way to ignore it.
The week I went on holiday it was impossible to avoid A Game Of Thrones which was an important reminder of just how big television is and just how small books are. It was also a reminder of how people tend to get locked into narratives: fantasy is a form of historical fiction; recent historical telly has got lots of shagging in it; fantasy fans are asexual. Cue mild cognitive dissonance from assorted journos and a million identical ledes. Anyway, I liked the preview for A Game Of Thrones but I won’t see it until it has aired in America then aired in the UK then been released on DVD. So to deal with the wait I settled for the next best thing: Black Death (2010).
Or so I thought but I’d made a major category error. Yes, it stars Sean Bean as a long-haired, sword-wielding soldiers but this is a long way from Boromir/Ned Stark territory. Rather than being fantasy or historical fiction, Black Death is a horror film. In particular, it is a horror film in which faith is an instrument of torture. I shouldn’t have been too surprised since the film is directed by Christopher Smith who was previously responsible for Creep (2004), Severance (2006) and Triangle (2009). I’ve not seen Creep but the other two interesting and effective horror films with lots of unusual touches. Black Death is certainly full of unusual touches but the result is bonkers and baffling rather than effective.
Eddie Redmayne is Osmund, a nervy young novice monk in 14th Century England at the height of the plague. His love for God is in conflict with his love (which we are given to believe has been consummated) for a local woman. When the plague reaches the monastery he forces her to flee to the forest for her safety, only to be torn by doubt over whether to follow her or stay with God. He prays for a sign. This appears in the form of Bean’s Ulric, a paladin and envoy of the local bishop. He requires a guide to take him and his men to nearby village which is hidden in the marshes and is rumoured to be free from the plague. More importantly, it is rumoured that the reason for this freedom is necromancy and it is Ulric’s job to lay God’s vengeance upon them.
Following this introduction, the next act unfolds as you would expect: Osmund signs up as the guide and gets to know the motley crew, the tension between being a man of God and a man of war is explored and, inevitably, the crew get all medieval on the arse of various persons who get in their way. In the midst of this is an important scene in which the crew come across a witch burning. Osmund, the man of God, pleads for the release of the young woman and argues that it is not God’s will. Ulric, a man of God but also a man of the world, stabs her to death. This is, he argues, an act of charity since even if they had freed her the mob would have found and burned her. At least he gave her a painless death (although, to be honest, it didn’t sound that painless.) There is a rich stew of faith, fear, gender and morality here and it is a stew that is brought to boiling point by the crucible of the God-less village.
The arrival of the crew at the village, following a journey through an exaggerated and heightened landscape, marks the turning point of the film. Their entrance is reminiscent of the arrival on Skull Island towards the beginning of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), the initially seemingly abandoned village revealing itself to be populated by silent, haunting figures. Smith switches entirely into horror mode at this point. Despite the deliberately eerie way the scene is shot, the group receive an incongruously warm welcome from the head of the village, Hobb (Tim McInnery). The modern viewer is left to assume that the village is simply the innocent victim of rumour, just like the poor woman damned as a witch earlier in the film. Or, at least, we would be if everything wasn’t imbued with a heavy air of the unheimlich and the villagers weren’t quickly revealed to be a bunch of atheists. They make no secret of this and are ahistorically contemptuous of Christianity to these heavily-armed messengers from God.
This contempt comes most strongly from the village herbalist, Langiva, who is played with frankly bizarre modernity by Carice van Houten. With her modern manners, mannish behaviour, cartoon lasciviousness and foreign accent she simply screams witch. Could it be that Langiva really is a witch? At this point I started scratching my head. We know witches don’t exist. Equally we know that thousands of women were murdered in the false belief that they were witches. Is Smith making a film that seeks to justify this slaughter?
Two things happen next. Firstly, the villagers throw a feast in honour of their visitors, complete with gallons of booze and slutty local woman. Secondly, Langiva gives Osmund the come on and beckons him out into the night. You can see that this isn’t going to end well. In fact, Langiva has invited Osmund to watch a necromancy ceremony where, complete with prosthetic witch make up, she raises his beloved from the dead. Simultaneous his compatriots are all passing out from the drugged grog and being interred in Viet Cong-style water cages. So Langiva is a witch, right? Certainly the facial transformation, the magic and the plan to protect the village from the Black Death by crucify and disemboweling her Christian captives suggests so. This allows the film to easily cast Ulric and his crew as the good guys and lets us cheer at their subsequent escape and raving of the village. Hooray! The church has finally turned the tables on those bloody women!
This would be puzzling and unpalatable enough on its own but the film has a few more unwelcome surprises to spring. Because it turns out Langiva isn’t a witch at all. The make-up was just make up (remarkably quickly and professionally applied), the necromancy was just a trick (when Osmund saw her previously she was sleeping not dead – that old chestnut) and she is well aware that her sacrifice plan is bullshit. It is all just a rouse to give her power over the village, although why she wants or needs that power is left unexplored. So Langiva isn’t a witch, she is just a mad bitch pretending to be a witch. So that makes everything okay.
Black Death saves the the worst for last though. Until now Osmund has been the protagonist and our narrator, now that latter role transfers to Wolfstan (John Lynch), the last surviving member of the crew. In voice over he tells us how Langvia’s torments pushed Osmund over the edge and transformed him from sensitive novice to heretic-purging witchfinder. He travels up and down the country murdering innocent women in the guise of hunting his “witch”. Wolfstan audibly shakes his head at this sad news. Poor, poor Osmund. The film’s final words are Wolfstan’s heartfelt wish that Osmund achieved some measure of peace, words that take place against the backdrop of another young woman being sentenced to death by torture. I’d like to believe they were spoken with irony but given the clumsiness, confusion and attitude to women that proceeded this, I don’t think they.
The only major role for a woman is that filled by van Houten’s ridiculous performance but all the roles are underwritten. The relationship between Osmund and Ulric should be the core of the film but, after some initial gestures in this direction, the approach is abandoned to concentrate Osmund, only for that to be abandoned too. I liked the performances from both Redmayne and Bean but there is not enough from either. Both McInnery and Andy Nyman return from Serverance but both have substantially reduced parts that highlight the contrast between the films. Black Death was written by Dario Poloni and completely lacks the wit of Severence or the intelligence of Triangle, both of which Smith himself wrote. Here’s hoping that for his next film he gets his own pen out again.
1) Someone Says Something Stupid About Joe Abercrombie
Leo Grin warns us of the bankrupt nihilism of contemporary fantasy authors. Chief amongst these writers is Joe Abercrombie:
Abercrombie’s freshman effort, the massive First Law trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Were Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings) was more than enough for me. Endless scenes of torture, treachery and bloodshed drenched in scatology and profanity concluded with a resolution worthy of M. Night Shyamalan at his worst, one that did its best to hurt, disappoint, and dishearten any lover of myths and their timeless truths. Think of a Lord of the Rings where, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth, and you have some idea of what to expect should you descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer.
I imagine most authors can only dream of having a jaded literary sewer. Other writers named as paddling in this sewer are Matthew Woodring Stover, Steven Erikson and Michael Swanwick. They stand in stark contrast to Grin’s heroes, JRR Tolkien and Robert E Howard, who he elevates because:
I don’t particularly care for fantasy per se. What I actually cherish is something far more rare: the elevated prose poetry, mythopoeic subcreation, and thematic richness that only the best fantasy achieves, and that echoes in important particulars the myths and fables of old.
In case you thought this was merely a case of his personal tastes not happening to be universal, here come the politics:
In the end, it’s just another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing. It’s a well-worn road: bored middle-class creatives (almost all of them college-educated liberals) living lives devoid of any greater purpose inevitably reach out for anything deemed sacred by the conservatives populating any artistic field. They co-opt the language, the plots, the characters, the cliches, the marketing, and proceed to deconstruct it all like a mad doctor performing an autopsy. Then, using cynicism, profanity, scatology, dark humor, and nihilism, they put it back together into a Frankenstein’s monster designed to shock, outrage, offend, and dishearten.
2) A Fan Responds
Well, lots of fans responded, it was all over Twitter. However, Adam Whitehead posted the first substantive response:
I think the author is conflating two separate issues here, the nihilistic/gritty/realistic ‘New Fantasy’ of the last two decades or so (a sweeping generalisation), which isn’t really that new, and the proliferation of overt sex/violence/swearing in recent fantasy books. Dealing with the first issue, it’s an odd point to make. The problem is that the author bemusingly names J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard as his preferred flavours of fantasy. Which makes very little sense, as few fantasy authors are more nihilistic than Tolkien and Howard… Of course, one brief look at the mythic inspirations for Howard and Tolkien, the great Norse sagas, the Arthur legends, Greek myths and so on, reveal stories far more tragic, blood-drenched and horrific than anything the likes of Abercrombie or Martin has ever come up with. This notion of pure black vs. white heroism ever being a dominant force in either mythology or fantasy literature seems to be illusory.
3) Joe Abercrombie Responds
As is now the way of the world, Abercrombie himself weighs in:
I’m a little suspicious, I must say, of any argument that lumps Tolkien and Howard together as one thing, although Leo has made the photos of them in his piece point towards each other in a very complimentary fashion. I think of them as polar opposites in many ways, and the originators (or at least key practitioners) of, to some extent, opposed traditions within sword-based fantasy. Tolkien, the father of high fantasy, Howard the father of low. Howard’s work, written by a man who died at thirty, tends to the short and pulpy (as you’d expect from stories written for pulp magazines). Tolkien’s work, published on the whole when he was advanced in years, is very long and literary (as you’d expect from a professor of English). Tolkien is more focused on setting, I’d say, Howard on character. Leo’s point is that they both celebrate a moral simplicity, a triumph of heroism, but I see that too as a massive over-simplification. Howard celebrates the individual, is deeply cynical (could one even say nihilistic) about civilisation. Tolkien seems broadly to celebrate order, structure, duty and tradition.
He notes that he is an admirer of both writers which chimes with my belief that he is at the heart of Third Wave Fantasy. Abercrombie then turns to the personal stuff; he deftly makes Grin look an arse but there is no real need to read it.
4) The Pros Respond
Next we have contributions from some other fantasy novelists. First up is mentally ill bigot John C Wright. As you might imagine, he is fully onboard with the decline of Western civilisation:
Mr. Leo Grin in his essay makes clear that he upholds the right of those who adore such degraded things to write and read their chosen poison. He is more generous than I. It is my judgment, shared of many ancients, that there are certain proper emotional reactions and relatins one ought to have, and improper ones one ought not. A child raised to curse and despise his parents, trample the crucifix, burn the flag, abhor kittens and Christmas scenes and motherhood but adore torture porn and satanism and deformity, that child’s tastes are objectively perverse and false-to-facts. He has been trained to spew his mother’s milk and drink venom. Fair to him is foul, and foul is fair. In the same way that to say A is not-A is an offense against logic, to hate the lovely and love the hateful is an offense against aesthetics, a disconnection from reality.
We don’t need to read any more from Wright but it is worth pointing out he hopes Grin’s post “will be studied seriously, both now in and in years to come, by all who read, write, and review in the genre.” Yeah.
Next we have the somewhat less insane R Scott Bakker who identifies Grin as falling into the fourth tribe of fantasy fans:
There’s the largest constituency, the Adventure Junkies, who want their fantasy to be as kinetic as Clive Cussler. Then there’s the two smaller constituencies: the Weird Junkies, who love smoking from the possibility-for-possibility’s sake bong, and there’s the World Junkies, who want something massive and, most importantly, believeable… What Grin has showed me is that there is fourth tribe of fantasy fans out there: the Nostalgia Junkies. I’ve spilled more than a few gallons of electronic ink over the years suggesting that much of fantasy’s appeal lies in the way provides readers the kinds of worlds that humans are prone to cook up in the absence of science, worlds adapted to our psychology, rather than vice versa. Scriptural worlds. Pondering his essay I couldn’t shake the sense that it was more the tone of Tolkien and Howard that he was missing, not the ideological content (which he seems to so clearly misread). The very tone that I have worked so hard – too hard, according to some critics – to recreate in my own fantasy fiction. Elevated, and serious unto lugubriousness. The tone of Believers.
I also enjoyed his characterisation of Grin as “an honest-to-God ‘Flat-Brainer’: someone who literally thinks that his yardstick is not bent, that he has not only won the Magical Belief Lottery, he has obviously done so.”
5) A Conversation At Black Gate
Last week, I read with great interest the discussion that began with Leo Grin’s comparison of the heroic fantasy fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard with the anti-heroic fantasy fiction of Joe Abercrombie. As this is a topic that has interested me for years, I have a number of thoughts regarding it. However, since I am a political commentator who is correctly said to be well outside the ideological mainstream of the SF/F community, I think it is best to begin by pointing out to those on both sides of the spectrum who may be eager to turn this into a political debate that this is not a political subject, but rather a historical, literary, and philosophical one. And as such, there is no need to argue over whether the trajectory over time that Grin observes is desirable or not, since that is a matter of perspective and personal opinion. Regardless of one’s ideological self-identification or opinion on the specifics of Grin’s observations, it should be eminently clear to all and sundry that something material and significant has changed within the field of fantasy fiction in the 71 years that separate Howard’s final publication from Abercrombie’s first one and the 52 years that separate the publication of The Return of the King from The Blade Itself.
It is hard to imagine a less inspiring introduction to an essay than this but luckily they provide a counter-point to this wrongheaded banality. Matthew David Surridge is anti-Grin:
Would it be accurate to say that other early fantasy writers, let’s say from the start of the twentieth century through to at least 1956, when The Lord of the Rings was published, depicted a traditional moral framework and featured traditionally heroic protagonists whose actions were held to be unequivocally just? Were they more or less prone to featuring blaspheming anti-heroes? The answer, it seems to me, is not as obvious as one might think. William Morris, Lord Dunsany, and James Branch Cabell were all religious skeptics, and their work to various degrees displayed not only irreverence but sometimes outright cynicism about moral proclamations and the accomplishments of heroes and warriors. It’s fair to say that E.R. Eddison, somewhat like Howard, featured heroic characters acting out of a specific moral code; but Eddison was even more pagan than Howard, essentially seeing the world as a product of the interplay of Jupiter and Venus. His characters were based on Renaissance nobles, but it was a Renaissance without a church, the Renaissance at its most Machiavellian.
If you only read one of the follow up posts, this is the one.
6) The Stragglers Respond
And, of course, the discussion continued to rumble on. Paul C Smith wonders if Grin actually knew what nihilism is:
The charge of nihilism is ridiculous because fantasy, especially epic fantasy (whether high or low), remains essentially moral fiction. Even when the protagonists are violent and self-serving, they are considered anti-heroes, ergo they still exist inside the sphere of morality, they are just on the other end of it than more heroic characters. If these novels were truly nihilistic, like McCarthy’s brilliant Blood Meridian, these sort of moral pronouncements would never come into play. In nihilism there can be no right or wrong because nothing can ever be known, therefore it follows that there can be no heroes or anti-heroes, just characters committing acts that have no value. In McCarthy’s world, we cannot even proclaim the monstrous Judge Holden a villain, because the parameters of the novel do not allow it. These gritty fantasy novels may be as far removed from Tolkien in terms of morality as Lolita is from Jane Eyre, but they still exist in the same moral universe.
As Matt Hilliard points out in the comments, the charge of nihilism is actually an interesting one in relation to Abercrombie’s work. This is a conversation I would like to return to but it is clear this is a far too nuanced argument for Grin.
Finally, My Elves Are Different pitch in. I think you have to be American to get it.
My review of Swords & Dark Magic, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders, is up now at SF Site:
So Swords & Dark Magic is an excellent showcase for both its contributors and the subgenre itself. If epic fantasy is generally considered to be most comfortable with a word count measured in the millions, sword and sorcery proves to be the perfect genre for the short story. Like their protagonists, the authors follow the adventurers’ code: get in and get out. The result is an anthology with a remarkably high hit rate. In fact, this is probably the single best original fantasy anthology I’ve read. More please.
It turned out to be a cracker but I initially requested a copy of Swords & Dark Magic because of an increasing interest in commercial fantasy, its substance and its taxonomy. This was also the subject of two earlier posts:
Edit: I gave Gene Wolfe’s contribution, ‘Bloodsport’, short shrift in my review since I don’t think it really fits with the anthology. However, I did discuss it in detail here.
On the bus into town today I was reading extracts from three highly anticipated fantasies forthcoming from Gollancz. First, there was a brief snippet of The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie:
“Vol . . . un . . . teered?” Tunny wrestled with the word as if it belonged to a foreign language. “So they do exist. Just make damn sure you don’t volunteer me for anything while you’re here. Anyway . . .” He drew the lads into a conspiratorial huddle with a crooked finger. “You boys have landed right on your feet. I’ve done all kind of jobs in his Majesty’s army and this right here,” and he pointed an affectionate finger at the standard of the First, rolled up safe under his hammock in its canvas cover, “this is a sweet detail. Now I may be in charge, that’s true. But I want you lads to think of me as, let’s say . . . your kindly uncle. Anything you need. Anything extra. Anything to make this army life of ours worth living.” He leant in closer and gave the suggestive eyebrows. “Anything. You can come to me.” Lederlingen held up a hesitant finger. “Yes?”
“We’re cavalrymen, aren’t we?”
“Yes, trooper, we are.”
“Shouldn’t we have horses?”
“That’s an excellent question and a keen grasp of tactics. Due to an administrative error, our horses are currently with the Fifth, attached to Mitterick’s division which, as a regiment of infantry, is not in a position to make best use of them. I’m told they’ll be catching up with us any day, though they’ve been telling me that a while. For the time being we are a regiment of . . . horseless horse.”
“Foot?” offered Yolk.
“You might say that, except we still . . .” and Tunny tapped his skull, “think like cavalry. Other than horses, which is a deficiency common to every man in the unit, is there anything you need?”
Klige was next to lift his arm. “Well, sir, Corporal Tunny, that is . . . I’d really like something to eat.”
Tunny grinned. “Well that’s definitely extra.”
Then a longer chunk of The Dark Commands by Richard Morgan:
He pointed out over the rail, old memories roiling like the water. “You can see where the dragon tore its way out – that long, ragged hollow near the front, the pieces that flap about when the swell hits. The dragon comes first, it’s like a mother bird protecting its brood. Then there’ll be a couple of hundred smaller hatching gouges further back where the reptile peons and the higher caste Scaled Folk came out afterwards. Once that happens, the whole raft starts to rot. It loses a lot of its bulk and in the end the currents carry it back out to sea. This has probably been drifting about out here since the early fifties at least.”
“You really killed one of these beasts?” She was watching him keenly now, he knew. “With that blade you carry? Now that is remarkable.”
“I suppose so. As I said, I did have help.”
“Even so. Are you not proud?”
Ringil grimaced. “If you’d seen some of the other things I’ve done with this blade, you’d perhaps be less enamoured of my feats.”
“And perhaps not.”
Was she rubbing herself against him at the hip? Ringil turned to face her, met her eyes, caught the gleam of saliva on the teeth in her grin.
“My lady, I don’t quite know how to put this to you gently, so I won’t try. You are wasting your time with me.”
“Am I?” The grin was still there. “That’s a hasty judgment.”
Ringil sighed, pressed thumb and forefinger to his eyes. Was he really going to have to fuck this mad-woman before they made port.
And finally, there is the whole first chapter of The Republic Of Thieves by Scott Lynch:
Locke’s symptoms revealed themselves the day they entered the Cavendria estuary.
At first it had been nothing more than bouts of dizziness and blurred vision, but as the days passed and they slowly tacked against the current, he began bleeding from his nose and the corners of his mouth. By the time they reached Lashain, he could no longer joke away the trickles of blood, or hide his increasing weakness. Instead of taking on stores, they’d rented rooms, and against Locke’s protests Jean began to spend nearly every coin they had on alchemists, physikers, herbalists, and assorted cures and comforts.
From Lashain’s underworld, which was tolerably colorful if not nearly as vast as Camorr’s, he’d consulted every poisoner and black alchemist he could bribe or coerce. All of them had shaken their heads and expressed professional admiration for what had been done to Locke; the substance in question was beyond their power to counteract. Locke had been made to drink a hundred different purgatives, teas, and elixirs, each seemingly more vile and expensive than the last, until Jean began to fear that one of them would kill him before the poison finished its work.
After that, Jean had dressed well and begun to call upon the accredited physikers of the city. Locke was explained away as a “confidential servant“ of someone wealthy and important, which could have meant anything from secret lover to private assassin. The physikers too had expressed regret and fascination in equal measure. Most of them had refused to attempt cures, instead offering palliatives to ease Locke’s pain. Jean fully grasped the meaning of this, but paid no heed to their pessimism. He simply showed each to the door, paid their exorbitant fees, and went out after the next physiker on his list.
Although I won’t get round to them for a while, I’m looking forward to each of these novels. This is particularly the case for Abercrombie and Morgan who manage to perfectly balance wit and grit, adventure and realpolitik. Lynch I am more concerned about: I was disappointed by Red Seas Under Red Skies and, whilst the wit is never in doubt, I hope this is anchored to something more substantial this time round.
(As an aside, I was amused to note that each of these extracts begin with the principal character waking up in a state of confusion. In your face, creative writing advice!)
I’ve publicised it in various places already but if you’ve read Winter Song by Colin Harvey – and if you are a BSFA member, you have no excuse – please pop over to Torque Control to join in our discussion.
Whilst reading online reviews of Harvey’s novel, I came across this review of Andy Remic’s Kell’s Legend. It is really quite remarkable:
This is a book that goes past normal violence into MEGAVIOLENCE(tm). We know we’re reading violence like we’ve never seen before BECAUSE IT TELLS US SO. MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) has hacking, crushing, hammering blades LIKE YOU’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE. MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) hits THROUGH people (sometimes in ITALICS) and then hits the person behind them. IN THE FACE. MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) has a sentence that is TWENTY-SIX LINES LONG (page 389-390, if you care), because MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) DOES NOT FUCKING CARE ABOUT YOUR PUSSY RULES OF GRAMMAR. MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) HIT YOUR GRAMMAR WITH AN AXE. AND THEN THE PUNCTUATION BEHIND IT.
This novel, Remic’s first for Angry Robot, saw him doing a Morgan – as Jon Courtenay Grimwood has just done – and crossing the aisle from science fiction to fantasy. The difference is that whereas Richard Morgan brought his political and social concerns to blend with classic sword and sorcery and contemporary epic fantasy, Remic appears to have merely brought his extreme misogyny to a brazen re-write of David Gemmel’s Legend.
Now, I haven’t read Kell’s Legend so maybe I shouldn’t say anything. However, I have read Bio Hell which is one of the worst novels I’ve read and shares the three insurmountable flaws Jared identifies. These are:
- Stunning incompetence at all aspects of writing
- A vile attitude to women
- No evidence of revision or editing or even basic thought
The reason I mention this is not because I enjoy poking the hornets’ nests but because it got me thinking about the fantasy blogosphere. After reading the Pornokitch review I quickly searched for a few other reviews. Those are the first two hits on Google and you will notice they are markedly different to Jared’s review. For example, James Long – one of the most respected British fantasy bloggers – concluded his review by saying:
Kell’s Legend is a rip-roaring beast of a novel, a whirlwind of frantic battles and fraught relationships against a bleak background of invasion and enslavement. In other words, it takes all the vital ingredients for a good heroic fantasy novel and turns out something very pleasing indeed.
I’m sure this is an honest response to the novel but I do wonder about the range of responses on the fantasy blogosphere. It often seems quite narrow. There has been a bit of hand-wringing recently about the David Gemmell Legend Award recently but I see that as the symptom rather than the problem itself. As Mark Charan Newton keeps saying, where is the discussion about the books? And (I would add) where is the discernment? Fans of good fantasy literature should be able to acknowledge that Gemmell was a serviceable writer at best (just as Robert Jordan was a mediocre one). Likewise, fans of good fantasy literature should be able to acknowledge that Remic is an unreadable writer at best. If the world made sense Kell’s Legend would never have been published. Instead, in our world, the sequel is out now and to add insult to injury it has one of the worst covers I’ve ever seen.
I thought it might be helpful to pick a few thoughts about epic fantasy and sword and sorcery out of that other post. Here are some of the characteristics that were thought might distinguish them:
- The plot is central to the world’s history or even cosmology.
- The story come to an end, usually with some sort of healing of the land, and either a restoration or dissolution of magic
- The story is published as single narrative arc (for example, a trilogy).
- Characters tend to the heroic.
- Setting likely to be pastoral and expansive.
Sword and Sorcery:
- The plot is what adventurous people tend to do within a particular world.
- There is always room for another adventure.
- The stories are published as a series of interlocking narratives (for example, individual novels)
- Characters tend to the anti-heroic.
- Setting can be urban and intimate.
Obviously these are not hard and fast rules and should be taken in the spirit of thinking aloud in public. The fact that these distinctions break down, particularly, in modern commercial fantasy, returns me to thinking about the history of the subgenres. For epic fantasy, this is relatively straightforward and seems to come in clear waves; for sword and sorcery, things are murkier and the waves are overlapping. Again, these are notes towards a theory so treat them with the scepticism they deserve and feel free to shoot me down in the comments.
- Progenitor text: Tolkien – Lord Of The Rings (1954-55)
- First wave – emergence as a commercial subgenre: Brooks – Shanara (1977-85), Eddings – Belgariad (1982-84) and Weis and Hickman -Dragonlance Chronicles (1984-85)
- Second wave – bestsellers within a mature subgenre: Jordan (1990-), Goodkind (1994-) and Martin (1996-)
Sword And Sorcery:
- Progenitor text: Howard – Conan (1933-35)
- First wave – emergence as not quite a subgenre: Leiber – ‘Fafhrd And Gray Mouser’ (1939-) and Anderson – Broken Sword (1954)
- Second wave – deconstruction and subversion: Moorcock – Elric (1965-75) and Wagner – Kane (1970-78)
The third wave of commercial fantasy then seems to be a merging of these two traditions. So, for example, Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains (2008) explicitly ties itself to the sword and sorcery tradition in opposition to Tolkien tradition but is not especially different to contemporary epic fantasy. Equally, Scott Lynch’s The Gentlemen Bastards (2006-) follows in the footsteps of Leiber but is highly popular and influential within epic fantasy circles. This isn’t entirely new, as previously mentioned Glen Cook’s The Chronicles Of The Black Company (1984-85) is an early example of this, but it does seem to be increasing and it may well explain the reason people have increasingly felt the need to resort to the adjective “gritty”.
Right, I have to go to a charity fundraiser now so I don’t have time to fully integrate two other important influences: Dungeons & Dragons (1974) and Perdido Street Station (2000). And yes, I know I need to read Wizardry And Wild Romance. (I also realise women are under-represented in this crude history.)